Internet Calling: Social Science and the Next Frontier

This week’s Tech 621 class is about self-organizing and online protest. It has me thinking, once again about the state of social science research and the Internet.

This past spring, the Arab Spring has made it clear that the Internet is a real concern and the variables may be more important than previously hypothesized. For years in political science there has been an emphasis to not over-emphasize Internet variables in research. One reason is possibly for the fact that the Internet and the phenomena surrounding were largely downplayed, due to skepticism of the power of the Internet.

No one would have predicted the Iranian Election Protests in 2009, but some social scientists were skeptical of the Internet’s effect. Morozov (2011) explains that bloggers and some academics may have been too quick to call the victory for the Internet over Iran’s theocracy. Morozov further explains that the movement’s momentum died within the next few months with little or no change made. By heralding the new social media it is entirely possible that the academic community sees an utopian view of the Internet; it can cure all of the culture’s ills.

I really appreciate what Morozov writes, because it is a very strong and important point. Especially with the phenomenon of the Digital Divide, where younger individuals seem to be using the Internet more often, and only 1 in 3 people have access to the Internet globally. However there seems to be a problem with these assertions:

Now we have an Occupy Wall Street movement which has Internet origins and political science is struggling to explain the phenomenon. This research is definitely being presented at conferences. At the Midwest Political Science Association’s and American Political Science Association annual meetings this year, there were many submissions that evaluated the Internet’s role in social phenomena. I’d argue it’s partly due to the little research on this topic being consistently published in the discipline’s flagship journals.  This is not to say there is no published research on the Internet in politics, but it’s generally in multidisciplinary journals or those that are not specifically within political science.

There was healthy skepticism about the Internet being overemphasized, but the time for that mentality is possibly coming to a close. Social science needs to be skeptical of the Internet and its influence, and be very careful in not overstating it. At the same time, social science also needs to cognizant of the fact that the social constructs within the Internet do occasionally differ from offline behavior, and as Dr. V mentioned:

I think all of us recognize familiar concepts online, but we need to ask whether the theories still apply… or if some things are changed in the online dynamics that warrant reconsidering existing concepts and theories… or adding new ones.

I think this is a very important point that social science needs to remember moving forward. The social science disciplines do not need to throw all their theories away when evaluating the Internet. The Internet opens a lot of doors for revising and strengthening theories. This will benefit everyone, even academics who are not interested in the Internet to see new avenues for research by extension. Even if Morozov is not exactly convinced with the influence of the Internet, I think what I have suggested uses a skepticism that he would appreciate.

Morozov, Evengy. 2011. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of the Internet. New York: Public Affairs.


About Mike Brownstein

I'm a Political Science MA student, and taking Tech 621 at Purdue University
This entry was posted in Commentary, Personal Reflections, Social Sciences, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Internet Calling: Social Science and the Next Frontier

  1. genxrecon says:

    I have been reading a LOT of philosophy lately (not my favorite by the way), but one of your comments regarding the social science establishment’s need to hold onto their “old” theories sounded strangely familiar to me. I found the passage I was thinking about on Naturalism (a philosophical branch) and share it with you here…
    “when the sciences are under political attack by hostile forces wanting to obstruct scientific research or inhibit scientific teaching, science turns to philosophy for staunch defenses of intellectual freedom and democratic secularism. Naturalistic philosophy constructs and maintains a liberal political order protecting science.”1

    I am by no means a philosophical expert… actually, I don’t even qualify for a novice. That said, those (social scientists or otherwise) who spend all their time defending their theories, might do well to stop and consider why. To defend a theory on principle is futile if new facts and data refute the original claim. Keep pushing the envelope…


  2. Mihaela says:

    Skepticism is healthy. Not everything that’s new is revolutionary. But an open mind that considers several possibilities is even healthier, IMO 🙂

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